Friend happy Connacht are fighting fit for quarter-final showdown

Coach says visitors will need to produce their best rugby to overcome Ulster in Belfast

Andy Friend: “We are pretty comfortable and confident in what we do. It will be a great battle.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Andy Friend: “We are pretty comfortable and confident in what we do. It will be a great battle.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Connacht coach Andy Friend is banking on his squad finding a new level of competitiveness when they face Ulster in Saturday’s Pro14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium.

Friend says his squad have played some good rugby this season but now is the time for an 80-minute display, if the province is to progress to the semi-final against Glasgow.

“I reckon the players are ready, and that is the most exciting thing, but I’ve said a few times, I still don’t think we have played our best rugby yet.

“We have played some really good rugby and showed that against Treviso – when we needed to win, we did. Against Ospreys we needed to deliver, we did; and Cardiff, we did. So we played some really good rugby, but on reflection we could have been better.”

Friend, however, believes his players are hitting top form now.

“In the month of April we’ve had 30 players who have hit personal bests, whether it’s on speed, in the gym, or body composition, and of those 30 players, we have had 53 personal bests. The most exciting thing is the 23 selected will go out there with nothing to lose and a lot to gain, so I’m excited by that.”

With some 46 players fit – minus lock Quinn Roux (virus) and centre/wing Kyle Godwin – Friend says there is a feeling of excitement ahead of Saturday’s knock-out game.

“We are where we want to be and now we must make sure we push on. We have talked about it, that every year we have one chance to have a crack because every year the squad will change. We have 12 players leaving, so this squad will never be together again. There will be 23 [selected], but they are representing everyone. There is a cultural awareness that is not just the individual, it’s about the team.”

However, Friend is facing some tough selection decisions, including at scrumhalf between Kieran Marmion and Caolin Blade, while Colby Fainga’a also comes back into the reckoning in the back row.

Tough calls

“Both Kieran and Caolin have done extremely well. They bring different things to the game, but we’re in a really healthy spot to know that one of them will play, and the other is coming off the bench.

“You want to have to make those tough calls. You will get disappointed players, the challenge for the player is to listen to the reasoning, then park it, and deliver a performance that will help push the team, and if the player is selected, there is a reason, so again to listen and make sure he continues to deliver what has got him selected.”

Friend is preparing the squad for a much tougher outing than the previous two this season, which Connacht won.

“Ulster will be filthy, and they should be,” he says. “But we are at their home again. Reference has been made that we are the only team to beat them up there this year, and that gives them another reason, so all the pressure is on us to repeat that. Fine, we are happy with that.

“We know they are a different team to what we faced last time we played them here, and a very different team to what we faced up there. You watch their quarter-final against Leinster in the Champions Cup – they were really good, so you know they can rise to to that level. Good on them, but we are pretty comfortable and confident in what we do. It will be a great battle.”

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